How Do You Teach Your Students To Read?


“A video I recently watched that was meant to help college students learn to read began by saying, ‘Don’t read for class the way you read a magazine.’ But the kids don’t read magazines.”

[“Absorbed by Light” by Design Bridge]

Do you teach your students how to read the kinds of works you assign? If you do, how do you do it?

These questions are prompted by a recent piece by political scientist Paul Musgrave (U. Mass Amherst) who details just how different the media diet of typical students is from those of their professors. “College instruction still assumes, even relies upon, the media consumption habits of mid-20th century America,” he writes, but “the kids don’t read.” People the age of most college students “report spending just 14 percent of an hour — eight point four minutes! — reading for personal interest a day.”

It’s not just that most students aren’t the kinds of students professors themselves remember being. Musgrave shares data showing that students consume most of their media on digital devices, and get most of their news through social media. They did not grow up reading various kinds of articles or essays that might have laid the groundwork for having the skills and patience to work through the materials their college instructors assign.

Musgrave writes:

I’ve started doing more direct reading instruction, including exercises to help students identify the thesis of a given reading and to teach the conventions of different forms of writing. This may seem basic, but it really isn’t: even within the kinds of general-interest readings I assign, the conventions of longform journalism, opinion writing, analytical essays (think Foreign Affairs), and straight news stories are as different as lyric poetry and free verse. And if you don’t know what’s going on, you really can’t read these, even if you can put every word and sentence together.

Philosophy professors are often assign not just whole chapters, articles, and books, but ones that may be written in a form, style, or idiom wholly unfamiliar to their students. What do you do, if anything, to instruct them on how to read?


Related: An Intro Philosophy Course that Uses Podcasts Instead of Readings. Reading Philosophy: Observations & AdviceThe Point and Selection of Readings in Introductory Philosophy CoursesWhy Students Aren’t Reading.

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Jeff
8 months ago

I co-teach a first year seminar with a History professor, and it was illuminating to see her walk students through the process of reading a primary document. It helped me rethink how I teach reading: that is has to be explicit and often. Now I will spend time in class reading the first paragraph of an essay that is assigned for the next class. It seems to work.

Another strategy is to assign things students want to read. Start with a piece of public philosophy, and then dig into the primary sources–or the problems–the piece addresses the following class. I’ve also had luck with this approach. You might also do something more basic. Take something from Appiah’s ethicist column to get students invested in the issue. Read the column in class, and then assign pieces that respond to the dilemma. This has worked for me, though it takes time finding the right column and the right readings to go with it!Report

Robert A Gressis
Reply to  Jeff
8 months ago

How do you figure out what students want to read? Is the strategy you used with the Appiah piece your answer to this question? I.e., you read a variety of articles out loud to the students, poll them, figure out which article went over the best, and then assign readings related to that?Report

Jeff
Reply to  Robert A Gressis
8 months ago

I mean a few different things. Sorry for the confusion. In a class where contemporary issues are discussed (say in an applied ethics course), I will often start the class with a survey of some issues, and then poll the class on which issues they’d like to dig into.

When teaching thinkers–like Kant, for example–I will often try to select “hook” readings that I think might make it more likely that the students will actually want to read Kant in order to address an issue that they are already invested in. There are several times when Appiah–for example–explicitly states that he is offering a Kantian response to a dilemma a reader writes into his column. If the student cares about the dilemma, then they may invest more in reading Kant to see if he is someone who has something interesting to say about it.

Meira Levinson–a philosopher of education–has books of realistic case studies that also work really well. The students invest in the case, and this makes them more interested–from my experience at least–in reading what philosophers might have to say in response to the case.

For what it is worth. My approach isn’t universally valid and may not even make sense depending on the topic taught. But if there is a problem of students not doing the reading, this is an approach that might be useful to think about.Report

Zack Garrett
8 months ago

I’m currently a high school teacher. I was worried when I moved from teaching college to high school since I didn’t expect them to have the basic reading skills that undergraduates do. I have been reading parts of the text with my students, taking turns reading paragraphs. The more difficult the text, the more we read in class. Then I point out the kinds of writing conventions that are common to philosophy at the moments the student first comes across them.

Not every reading needs to be read in class, but covering some paradigmatic examples of philosophical writing in class lets students see how to read philosophy.Report

Harald Karlsson
8 months ago

One thing I find perplexing is how kids these days try to read while listening to their Ear-Pods in, or with boomboxes playing. This would have been unheard of when I was a student. One thing I tell students is to read in silence. This is, in my opinion, the bare minimum required for giving the text intense and sustained focus and concentration.Report

Zack Garrett
Reply to  Harald Karlsson
8 months ago

Some students report that they cannot pay attention without some noise. I can’t imagine reading while listening to music with lyrics, but it may help some to listen to really mellow instrumental music.Report

William J Rapaport
Reply to  Zack Garrett
8 months ago

A high school friend reported that she had to listen to loud rock music while reading: The extra effort involved in trying to tune the music out allegedly(!) helped her concentrate on the reading 🙂Report

Harald Karlsson
Reply to  William J Rapaport
8 months ago

Loud rock music? That is barking mad. I can’t even comprehend the idea of focusing on the text of serious thinkers (such as Bertrand Russell) for with the latest rock and roll cacophony clattering on (what is it they’re listening to, the Rolling Stones?) Unthinkable! As I say, focus on the text in silence – this is the best policy.Report

HeadphoneReader
HeadphoneReader
Reply to  Harald Karlsson
8 months ago

Most students do not have the luxury of uninterrupted silence, especially these days with parents, siblings, etc. all on separate Zoom calls all day long.

I’ve spent my entire reading life with headphones on. Music and reading can be a beautiful match. It’s a lovely treat to have a particular album come on and have it remind you of a passage of Kant, or whatever you were reading at the time.Report

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Harald Karlsson
8 months ago

Kids these days, with their boomboxes and Rolling Stones!Report

Neil Levy
Neil Levy
Reply to  Kenny Easwaran
8 months ago

At least their professors keep up with the latest serious thinkers (Bertrand Russell).

In other news, “Harald Karlsson” is having a lend if us.Report

Doris
Doris
Reply to  Kenny Easwaran
8 months ago

Turns out, there is a large empirical literature on the effect of background music (‘BGM” in the argot) on reading comprehension and other cognitive tasks.

I’d be curious to hear others’ impressions, but my quick troll of google scholar suggests findings are “mixed,” with evidence of positive, negative, and no effects.

Fascinatingly, there may be individual differences, with “extraverts” benefiting more than “introverts.”

Variables like kind of music may also matter.

In any case, we can’t confidently conclude that listening while working is “barking mad” — a relief to me as a (occasionally extraverted) BGM worker.Report

Justin Kalef
Reply to  Harald Karlsson
8 months ago

Agreed, Harald.

It may be possible for some of us experienced readers to read with loud music on. But we’re talking here about students who have never been made to read anything seriously, and who have never chosen to take on that task. What they need is the experience of focusing on something and learning to see what comes out of it. Once they learn how to do that, they can experiment with adding in distractions to see whether they can still handle it.

Many seem to have taken for granted that we need to chase students all the way to the bottom: they presume that if some students do X, then we have to make sure they can learn while doing X; if a few random students can’t avoid doing Y, then it would be terrible for us to even suggest that students not do Y when they study. If we follow that route, there really is no bottom and the project of teaching is already doomed. But there’s no need for that. It is well within the power of nearly all students to find a place without obvious distractions and focus on reading for awhile. If they have no quiet rooms at home, and cannot make any rooms quiet, then they can generally go outdoors (yes, they can bundle up) and go sit at a quiet bus stop, in a park, or even on the front steps of their apartments. They can be inventive. Those things won’t provide silence, but they will be better than sitting in a room with people having a conversation, or reading next to the TV, or wearing headphones with booming music as they try to attend to someone else’s ideas for a few minutes.

It’s true that, since their previous teachers presumably didn’t get them to do this, many will find it extremely difficult to focus on reading for even a few minutes. But they can get there with serious training. They can start by just reading a single, simple sentence, taking 30 seconds on it, and gradually increase their endurance.

If students who have never tried to focus on reading — and only reading — for a few seconds before, and who can’t do it yet, and who will somehow be able to pass all their other courses without learning to do it, can develop the ability to focus on reading for ten straight minutes, the course that gets them to do that will probably be the most important one they take at college, even if it teaches them nothing else. And if we can’t get them to the level where they can do that, I’m not really sure what justifies our taking their (parents’) money in return for whatever else we’re doing.Report

Michel
Reply to  Harald Karlsson
8 months ago

I’m in my mid-thirties. I listen to melodic death metal while I read and write. I don’t have to–I’m perfectly capable of reading and writing philosophy in silence–but I like to. Among other things, it sets a pace. Certain albums become associated with certain projects because once I find something that fits my mood for the project, I just put it on repeat and listen to it until the project is done.Report

Last edited 8 months ago by Michel
krell_154
krell_154
Reply to  Michel
7 months ago

I really want to hear some of the philosophical projects associated with particular melodic death bands…Report

Robert A Gressis
Reply to  Harald Karlsson
8 months ago

For what it’s worth, I will often read a difficult piece of philosophy while listening to music or white noise (though I prefer brown noise to white noise). I have an app for brown, pink, or white noise, but when I listen to music, it’s usually music that has lyrics in a language I don’t understand, so I don’t get drawn in. Once the music becomes too familiar, though, this stops working and I have to start listening to different kinds of music.

I have some moods where silence is better, but other times — like when I have a lot of anxiety — more stimulation allows me to more easily focus.Report

Sergio Tenenbaum
Reply to  Harald Karlsson
8 months ago

I did nearly all my reading in college while listening to music, and throughout graduate school (and till the last of the pre-pandemic days) I would often read in coffee houses, where there is not only music but also constant chatter. Luckily I did not have to disclose any of that in my grad school applications or even during job interviews.Report

krell_154
krell_154
Reply to  Sergio Tenenbaum
7 months ago

Background chatter is different from music. Music playing while you’re alone in the room is much more obtrusive than music and other sounds of the coffee shopReport

Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Harald Karlsson
8 months ago

I’m almost forty and I’ve almost always worked, including reading, with music on.
But I realize you’re probably having fun with us.Report

Last edited 8 months ago by Nicolas Delon
Mark
Mark
Reply to  Harald Karlsson
8 months ago

Perhaps in return for us teaching our students how to read philosophical texts, they could give us a few lessons in how to read online comments. Lesson #1: how to tell when someone is obviously having a lot of fun trolling you…Report

William J Rapaport
8 months ago

I try to teach them to read slowly, one sentence at a time, thinking about each one, and not going on to the next until they fully understand the one they’re reading. If they really can’t understand it, they can ask about it, or write a paper on why it’s wrong! Take a look at my How to Study guide at https://cse.buffalo.edu/~rapaport/howtostudy.html#readactively
I’m currently writing a philosophy of computer science textbook in which one chapter is such a slow reading of Turing’s 1936 paper on computation. (Draft available upon request to [email protected])Report

Matt L
Reply to  William J Rapaport
8 months ago

I try to teach them to read slowly, one sentence at a time, thinking about each one, and not going on to the next until they fully understand the one they’re reading.

This sounds like a good idea, but might not work so well with, say, The Critique of Pure Reason. I never would have made it past the first few pages! Slightly more seriously, “go slow and think about it” is surely important, but it does seem that the chunk of meaning is often larger than a sentence, and it’s also sometimes valuable to press on, even if you don’t understand, since sometimes that starts to get better as you get in to, or get a hang of, more of the text.Report

Tom Leddy
Tom Leddy
8 months ago

Amazing. Young people get most of their news from social media and never read the thousands of words they see. 

Sent from the all new AOL app for iOSReport

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Tom Leddy
8 months ago

I was definitely curious about this point. How did the study define “reading”? I consume most of my media on digital devices, and get most of my news through social media, but probably spend several hours reading every day as a result, even when I am completely failing to do any work. However, I could imagine that someone whose social media feed skews more towards TikTok than Reddit, or who preferentially clicks on videos and images rather than headlines, might spend just as much time on digital devices and get just as much news through social media, but with much less reading than me.

I and many other people find it infuriating to have to sit through a ten minute video to get something I could have had from a 1000 word essay, but I’ve heard that some fraction of the population has the reverse set of responses. It would be helpful to know what fraction of our students are each way.Report

Erin Beeghly
8 months ago

I run an interactive Reading Bootcamp most semesters using David Concepción’s article “How to Read Philosophy.” Then I have students do reading every other week through the annotation app Perusall. They collectively annotate texts and help each other. Students can always @ me through the app if they need help understanding a passage.

Students have reported that these exercises are fun, promote comprehension of difficult philosophical texts, and help them to become more careful, critical readers.Report

jmugg
jmugg
Reply to  Erin Beeghly
8 months ago

I’m using Concepcion’s article and recommended in-class reading today. Next semester, I might add in his suggestion on note passing too.Report

benjamin s yost
Reply to  Erin Beeghly
8 months ago

I have not been super rigorous about it, but I’ve used Hypothesis annotation and my suspicion is that it works well for teaching reading skills. Folks should check it out (along with Perusall) and see what they think.Report

Jonathan
8 months ago

I don’t see any reason to be worried by the data Musgrave presents. For example, consider the reading time data. Are younger people reading significantly less than older people? The data say that essentially no one reads for personal interest until retirement age. The average “hours spent reading for personal interest” from ages 15 through 54 are *all* under 15 minutes per day. And is that surprising? No! We’re talking about reading **for personal interest** here. My son reads a lot. But it’s all mandated reading for school work. It’s not reading that he does for his own interest. I expect (since these are averages) that the same is true for most people.

Continuing: Do we have any reason to think that people in the youngest age groups, say 15 – 25, read less now than they did 30 or 40 years ago? No! Consider this report on the use of time by youth from 1981 to 2003: Changing_times_of_American_youth_1981-2003.pdf In that report (Table 1), they found that average reading time for children aged 6-17 was one hour and nine minutes per week (meaning about ten minutes each day) in 1981 and one hour and 17 minutes per week (meaning 11 minutes each day) in 2003. The chart Musgrave took from USBLS data shows that people aged 15-19 read about 8 minutes each day (for personal interest, so probably not *all* of their reading time). So, there’s *maybe* a slight decrease in reading time per day. But probably not, since the earlier measure didn’t look at reading for personal interest but in reading simpliciter.Report

Animal Symbolicum
8 months ago

The first thing I do is tell my students that reading a stretch of philosophy is not like reading an entry in an encyclopedia or a section in a textbook. We read philosophy not to find out from the author what the facts are but to think along with the author: we try to catch their train of thought, to figure something out with them, to see what their “logic” is, and to determine whether their “logic” withstands reasonable scrutiny.

The highest praise we can give an encyclopedia entry is its being comprehensive and true; something like that goes for a textbook section as well. But the highest praise we can give a bit of philosophy is its being well- or interestingly-reasoned. (This goes along with something else I tell my students: every question has the same true but boring answer, namely, “it depends,” so appreciating precisely on what it depends is more important for intellectual growth.)

Going through brief examples usually suffices for getting them to see the difference between the two kinds of reading. Getting them to perform and to appreciate performing this kind of reading is another story.

One class exercise I have done to show my students what it is to think along with an author is to present them with three or four very short chains of reasoning that I wrote and ask them to draw “my” conclusion for themselves. (It’s well documented that when students know the conclusion, they will automatically either agree or disagree with it, and this inhibits their ability to appreciate the reasoning behind it.)

An appreciation of the distinctive pleasures of thinking things through, of understanding, or of grasping a chain of reasoning — such things must be instilled far earlier than college. There’s only so much a precariously employed grade stamper at a credential factory can do.Report

Ruth Sample
8 months ago

I usually have my students write a 250 word précis of the assigned reading, but this semester, I am assigning a more focused “reconstruction” of a section of the reading. The basic idea is sketched out here : https://twitter.com/antongliu/status/1477645837249437701?s=21Report

Eric Steinhart
8 months ago

I spend the first three or so weeks in intro teaching reading. We literally read short texts (Divided Line, Melian Dialog, Descartes’ First Meditation) together out loud. I teach them all the reading things. I learned the hard way that this is absolutely necessary.

Also I try to always find videos for them to watch. They watch videos.Report

Derek Bowman
8 months ago

For many of my classes, I give my students reading guides with guiding questions organized section-by-section or paragraph-by-paragraph. I modeled it off of the individual conferences I had with an intro student who was struggling to get the hang of reading philosophy – breaking down the text into smaller portions, paying attention to the structure (e.g. objection-reply), and focusing on details. With some students this has been incredibly effective, but it does require some initiative on the part of the student.

You can see some examples at the link I included with my name, though as with most things on my personal website, I need to update them with the revised and expanded set I’ve built up over the last few years.Report

Becky Vartabedian
8 months ago

I ask my students how they read, to identify strategies do they use, and to indicate any tricks or habits they have developed in their previous classes or gleaned from high school. This approach is different than one I’ve used in the past; this time around I’m leading with the question, what if students studying philosophy understood they already had what they needed to approach the texts we study? We can work on developing sophistication as the semester goes on – I’m not worried about that as much as I am students identifying resources they already have available to them to respond to the material I and other profs will assign.Report

Daniel Weltman
8 months ago

I do a “how to read” session in class. For something approximating that, see this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DNTS_K1PJkwReport

Nathan King
8 months ago

I try to encourage slow reading by giving students a set of questions for each reading. The questions track the text sequentially, and are designed in such a way that if students can answer them, they’ll have a good idea what is going on in the reading. Students are required to take notes in response to these questions, and the notes comprise a significant portion of the final grade for the course (say, 30%). To lower the stakes a bit, I grade based on evidence of effort, rather than accuracy. Class time is then devoted to formulating a precise version of the author’s argument for evaluation.Report

Vincent C. Müller
Vincent C. Müller
8 months ago

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